Hearts 2015 review: Jam Tarts come a long way ..

Hearts director of football Craig Levein, club owner Ann Budge and head coach Robbie Neilson celebrate with the Championship trophy
Hearts director of football Craig Levein, club owner Ann Budge and head coach Robbie Neilson celebrate with the Championship trophy
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HISTORY will show 2015 as a monumental year in Hearts’ ongoing recovery.

They emerged from administration in June 2014 and began rebuilding what was a shell of a football club. By the time the New Year bells sounded six months later, their momentum was verging on that of a juggernaut.

A blistering start to life in the Championship had erased some of the torment of relegation. Hearts left rivals Hibs and Rangers trailing in their wake, galloping ahead in a league which was supposed to be fiercely contested until the last kick of the last ball. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would end the year back in the Premiership, challenging for European football, with more new signings and the promise of a much-anticipated new main stand at Tynecastle.

First, the priority was securing promotion from the Championship at the first attempt. Robbie Neilson, looking far from a novice in his first campaign as a manager, watched his team draw 1-1 with city neighbours Hibs in the traditional New Year Edinburgh derby to remain 13 points ahead of second-placed Rangers.

After a flurry of new arrivals in the weeks which followed the end of administration, Neilson again ventured into the transfer market. He was keen to reinforce his attacking options and brought striker Genero Zeefuik on loan from Dutch club Groningen. It was to prove a shrewd acquisition.

Two goals on his debut in a 5-1 win at Dumbarton indicated a player with an eye for goal, if also someone who looked strangely overweight for a footballer. His size was to prove one of his advantages, however, but wasn’t as notable as his predatory scoring instincts.

The year wasn’t without setbacks, though. Hearts were on a 20-match unbeaten league run and threatening to win the title without losing a game until Falkirk arrived at Tynecastle on January 24. A 3-2 home defeat was unexpected to say the least. Its timing probably served as a reminder to those in maroon that promotion was not yet theirs to celebrate, something Neilson had stressed for weeks on end.

A record-breaking 10-0 home win over Cowdenbeath was February’s highlight before Hearts guaranteed their return to Scotland’s top flight in March. A convincing 3-0 win at Falkirk on March 21 put them on the brink of being crowned champions. The following day, Rangers’ 2-0 win at Easter Road confirmed it, ironically with former Hearts full-back Lee Wallace one of the goalscorers.

The club was by then recovering from a major loss following the death of the legendary Dave Mackay. He passed away in Nottingham on March 2 at the age of 80 and his death was felt deeply by all connected with the Tynecastle club. It seemed fitting that they won a title in memory of arguably their greatest ever captain.

The trophy was eventually lifted on the first weekend in May as Hearts finished a colossal 21 points ahead of second placed Hibs. It was a momentous day in the rebuild of the Tynecastle club and one which those involved will never forget. Nonetheless, Neilson was already planning for the future and refused to wallow in the success of his first year in charge.

Captain Danny Wilson had already indicated he would leave after invoking a clause in his contract and eventually chose to rejoin formative club Rangers and stay in the Championship. Zeefuik returned to the Netherlands after 12 goals in 15 appearances, left-back Adam Eckersley was not given a new contract, and striker James Keatings was told he was free to leave if he found a new club. The latter two would end up on the other side of Edinburgh with Hibs.

Their replacements were mostly foreign. Blazej Augustyn from Poland and Brazilian Igor Rossi arrived to bolster the defence. Nigeria’s World Cup left-back Juwon Oshaniwa would eventually join them after a protracted visa wait. In attack, Juanma Delgado was regarded as something of a coup from the Greek club Kalloni. Gavin Reilly was the only Scot recruited. He arrived from Queen of the South on a three-year contract.

The refreshed squad were expected to achieve their stated aim of a top-six finish. No-one could have predicted such an intense start back in the Premiership, however. Hearts won their first five matches to sit top of the league, two points ahead of Celtic and three better off than Aberdeen, before their momentum was halted in a controversial 3-2 defeat at Hamilton.

September brought another two new midfield faces in the shape of former Dundee United player Danny Swanson and the Belgian Arnaud Djoum. It proved to be a difficult month with further losses against Inverness and Aberdeen testing the resolve on Neilson’s squad. They regrouped and reached the League Cup quarter-final, losing narrowly at home to Celtic at the end of October.

Hearts are on course to end the year in third place in the Premiership, a remarkable achievement 18 months since the end of a year-long administration. The restructuring process still has some way to go but Neilson, alongside owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein are proving adept at the task.

Something which could, in the future, transpire as the biggest legacy of the Budge era was announced just four weeks ago at the club’s AGM. Years of uncertainty have surrounded Hearts’ tenure at their beloved Tynecastle and Budge told shareholders her plan is to keep the club there by building a new main stand. More detailed plans will be announced in the New Year, promising a fair degree of excitement in 2016 as well.

Whether it comes close to 2015 remains to be seen. Hearts have travelled such a long way in a short space of time and certainly crammed a lot into the last 12 months.